Ben Franklin praised it, and cooks have cursed it, but the fact of the matter is, turkey is traditional this time of year and traditions die hard. No one wants steak for Thanksgiving.
So it is that the vast majority of American cooks will once again confront the task of preparing a feast for a flock of relatives and friends. Difficult as it may be to juggle conversation with cooking, or maintain poise while stuffing the fowl (and mashing potatoes and grinding cranberries), the entire process can be simplified (and made safer) provided one plans in advance and follows the guidelines of the experts.
Should you find yourself in charge of the bird and trimmings this year, the following tips should prove helpful. Buying
According to USDA economist Allen Baker, consumers can expect to pay about 20 cents more per pound for their turkeys this year, depending of course on the type of turkey purchased. Why the increase? Production cuts -- combined with a higher demand for turkey and turkey products -- are partly responsible, explains David Goldenberg, director of industry relations for the National Turkey Federation. But Goldenberg points out that the increase won't necessarily be passed on to the consumer. Turkey is considered by supermarkets to be a loss leader, an item that draws customers into the stores, he notes. So while retailers might take a loss on the sale of turkeys, they invariably make up for that loss with the sale of pumpkin pies, squash and assorted holiday foods. Local prices, according to the chain stores, will range from 89 cents per pound (for a frozen 10-22 pound turkey) to $1.29-$1.39 per pound (for fresh brand-name birds under 10 pounds). Whether you choose a fresh or frozen turkey, figure on 3/4-1 pound of meat per person. (You'll probably have leftovers, but they won't last for long.) The hen or tom designation that appears on the label of each turkey is an indication of size rather than tenderness, the tom being the larger of the two. Storing
If you decide to cook a fresh bird, then buy it only 1-2 days before you plan to cook it and immediately refrigerate it at 40 degrees or below. Frozen turkeys can be stored up to a year in a freezer without much quality depreciation, although turkey parts, with less freezer-life, should be used within six months of storing. Frozen pre-stuffed turkeys should be kept frozen until cooking time, as bacteria can develop if the bird has a chance to thaw. Thawing
Keep the turkey cold while it thaws. There are two methods of thawing fresh turkeys, the more preferable being in the refrigerator. Simply place the wrapped turkey in a pan large enough to keep the water accumulation from spilling over in the refrigerator. The USDA recommends allowing 1-2 days for 8-12 pound birds to thaw, 2-3 days for 12-16 pounders, 3-4 days for 16-20 pounders and 4-5 days for 20-25 pounders. Alternatively, one can place the wrapped frozen turkey in a cold water bath and change the water every 30 minutes. The thawing time using this method is 4-6 hours for 8-12 pound birds, 6-9 hours for 12-16 pounders, 9-11 hours for 16-20 pounders and 11-12 hours for 20-24 pounders. Washing
Remove the neck and giblets and carefully wash inside and out with cold water. Drain well and pat dry. Salt and pepper the inside of the bird. Keep your hands washed after touching the bird and remember to keep utensils clean throughout the cooking process. Stuffing
No one would intentionally serve staphylococcus aureaus with the Thanksgiving meal, but to avoid problems, careful attention must be paid to this step. There are two ways to handle stuffing. One method is to bake it in a greased and covered casserole dish for the last hour the turkey cooks. This option entails less mess and less cooking time for the turkey. The other alternative is to pack the cavity loosely by hand and close the opening with a skewer, toothpicks or a clean piece of string -- or cover the opening with the heel of a loaf of bread. Do not stuff the bird in advance to save time. If you want to get as much work done possible in advance, assemble the dry and wet ingredients separately the night before, making sure to refrigerate the latter, and combine them just before stuffing the turkey the next day. Allow 3/4 cup stuffing per pound of turkey. Roasting
In a shallow roasting pan, place the turkey breast side up and brush the surface with a coating of cooking oil or butter if desired. To avoid overbrowning and promote heat circulation, cover the bird with a tent made of foil, crimping the edges loosely on the sides of the pan. Poke a meat thermometer through the foil and into the thickest part of the thigh muscle. (The turkey is done once the temperature reaches 165 degrees here. Another way to check doneness is to press the meat of the drumstick between your fingers. The meat should be very soft.) To brown the turkey, remove the foil 20-30 minutes before the cooking time is finished. Basting is not necessary using this method.
Use the accompanying guide to roast (in a 325-degree oven) your turkey. Let the turkey rest, covered with foil, at least 20 minutes before carving.
Despite what your grandmother may have done or what the latest fad tells you to do, it's best not to cook a turkey over the course of a day or more at low temperatures. This only increases the chances for bacterial growth. Storing Leftovers
Turkey and stuffing should be allowed to remain standing no more than two hours from the time they're removed from the oven. (Be sure to remove remaining stuffing from the turkey as soon as possible.) Store large portions of leftovers in small quantities in shallow covered containers. Turkey leftovers should be kept in the refrigerator no more than 3-4 days. Stuffing and gravy leftovers should be used within 1-2 days. Questions
If all else fails, first time turkey-roasters (and even veteran cooks) should be relieved to know there are several hotlines available to answer further questions:
USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline: (202)472-4485.
The Butterball Turkey Talk-Line: 800-323-4848. This service is available Nov. 5-Dec. 24, Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; weekends Nov. 10-11 and Nov. 17-18, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; Thanksgiving Day, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; Christmas Eve, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.
Fleischmann's Bakers Hotline: 800-932-7800. Answers questions about yeast baking. Call 9 a.m.-9 p.m. or leave message after hours and have your call returned the following day.
Cooperative Extension Service: These phone numbers are listed under county government or state university in the phone book. Call your area extension service for questions regarding the handling and storage of food, as well as its nutritional content.